The (Classist, Racist) History of Jaywalking—And Why Policing It Should Stop
There’s more to the word and law behind “jaywalking” than meets the eye or common assumption.
In fact, lurking behind this common word and often-cited form of lawbreaking sits classism, racism, and the domination of the automobile over the human—and is far from just someone who decides to, in the eyes of most motorists, idiotically flint into the streets when Goddammit, they can walk to the next crosswalk, press the button, wait for a little white guy to appear in the lights, and then cross so as to not disrupt my very exhausting routine of tapping my foot on a pedal.
Sarcasm aside, in 2016, I walked over 2,000 miles, or an average of about 5.7 miles every single day of the year. And I did this since my focus on livability issues had shifted from biking to pedestrians because, bluntly put, pedestrians are the most vulnerable of any person moving. This an opinion I have not been light on expressing and have encouraged further reflection from a policy and administrative angle.
However, there’s been one key angle that many have not discussed about the pedestrian: the jaywalkers of the world and their misaligned history with pedestrian shaming, targeting people of color, and brilliantly put by author Tom Vanderbilt, “allows humans the ability to violate the Vehicle Code while cars, apparently, do not violate a ‘Human Code.'”
This social justice angle of what it means to be a jaywalker in the law’s eyes came to a high point this week when a young black named Nandi Cain Jr. was pummeled by a police officer—so badly that even before the investigation was opened up against the officer, the Sacramento Police Department called the video “disturbing” and “The actions of the [officer involved] do not appear to be reasonable based upon the circumstances.” It echoed the disturbing case of a teen jaywalker beaten by Stockton police in 2015.
So what, exactly, is jaywalking and where did it come from?
Before automobiles, streets were for people—a sentiment that, following the suburban sprawl and dominance of the automobile from the 1960s onward that generated traffic and pollution more than accessibility, has created the foundations of new urbanism, a growing segment of urban-centric folks who wish to return the streets back to the people. Before the car dominated our culture, you were to cross the street wherever you were.
In fact, “jay-driver” came before “jaywalker,” referring to horse-led carriage drivers that didn’t abide by the laws of the road. In fact, according to Merriam-Webster, an article in Kansas’ Junction City Union on June 28, 1905 begins:
[Concerning these ‘Jay Drivers’]… Stop at the corner of any well traveled street in the business part of the city and see how many know how to drive—that is to keep to the right hand side of the street—and you will be astonished at the number who don’t know that this is the right way to do or who are careless in regard to the matter.
In October of that same year in The Kansas City Star, Merriam-Webster notes the mention of the pedestrian version of these drivers:
Much annoyance would be obviated if people when meeting others going in the opposite direction would keep to the right and avoid collisions and being called a ‘jay walker.’
Even more, however, is the word “jay” itself, first used to describe someone from the backwoods or country, venturing into the great urban landscape, so amazed by the lights and the streets and the shops that they keep stopping and getting in the way of other pedestrians. Peter Norton, professor and author of Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City and the essay Street Rivals: Jaywalking and the Invention of the Motor Age Street, even notes that “jay” was derogatory and a “mid-western slang [word that described] person from the country who was an empty-headed chatterbox, like a bluejay.”
So how does this apply to our streets? Well, firstly and bluntly put, drivers were out of control. In DTLB at Ocean and Pine in the 1920s, the amount of people getting killed by cars was so high—over 80 deaths in the month of August alone in 1927—that it prompted then-Councilmember Alexander Beck to created a tunnel (which still exists) that went under Ocean.
A key moment arrived when, according to Norton, a petition signed by 42,000 people in Cincinnati in 1923 to limit the speed of cars mechanically to 25mph, which ultimately failed. But make no mistake: the auto industry heard loud and clear that it must shift blame from drivers to pedestrians.
As Norton explains, “before the city street could be physically reconstructed to accommodate motor vehicles, it had first to be socially reconstructed as a modern thoroughfare.”
And this was achieved through ridiculing those unable to afford a vehicle while providing the car more power than the human, all led by the automobile industry through myriad tactics.
“In Buffalo,” according to journalist Ravi Mangla, “beachgoers were treated to a public performance by the National Safety Council, in which a jaywalker was arrested, handcuffed and fitted with a sandwich board that read ‘I am a jaywalker,’ and then ushered into a police wagon plastered with anti-pedestrian slogans: Hell is paved with good intentions, but why crowd the place? Don’t jaywalk. By the 1930s, jaywalking had been adopted as common law in most major municipalities. The term was near ubiquitous, and opposition to the automobile had softened to scarcely a whisper.”
What this ultimate resulted in is what Vanderbilt, author of Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do, notes as an absence in the design of streets—mainly the absence of humans. “For years, pedestrians were essentially written out of the equation when it came to designing streets—they didn’t even appear in early computer models, and when they did, it was largely for their role as impedance, as blocking vehicle traffic.”
Four Stockton police officers tackle 16-year-old Emilio Mayfield for jaywalking in September of 2015.
This targeting of jaywalkers didn’t stop then but rather got amped up by being directly connected to “broken windows” policies—built on the belief that cracking down on small offenses, like jaywalking, will deter criminals from committing major offenses—that caused an uptick in the penalizing of jaywalkers. Under Mayor Rudy Guiliani, penalty cost went up from $2 to $50 and, under current Mayor Bill de Blasio, went up to $250.
But most perturbing? These policies disproportionately target people of color.
The Department of Justice report on the Ferguson Police Department discussed that 95% of those cited in the city for jaywalking are black. In New York City, the vast majority of jaywalking tickets aren’t issued in the affluent Upper East Side but in poorer areas like the Bronx and 81% of minor infractions are taken out on Blacks or Latinxs. In Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, 89% of violators targeted are people of color despite being a city that is primarily white.
And our neighbor to the north, Los Angeles? They mainly target people of color and the homeless and act as “an added tax for the crime of being poor.”
But, scream the pundits, but what about pedestrian safety?!
“As for pedestrian safety, which is the typical stated purpose of jaywalking crackdowns,” said Vanderbilt, “more pedestrians generally are killed in urban areas by cars violating their right of way than are rogue pedestrians violating vehicles’ right of way. Then there are those people struck on sidewalks, even inside restaurants.”
When it comes to California’s law, it is almost bafflingly unclear. CVC 21456, the law for jaywalking, was enacted back in 1981 when there was no countdown; just a white man and a flashing hand. Now, however, we have countdowns as to when the signal to cross to end—but the law isn’t written for that, meaning it is illegal to cross a street during the countdown.
This resulted in a controversial round-up of jaywalkers by LAPD in 2015 that—yup, you guessed it—ticketed people who crossed while the light was still counting down.
Ultimately, this is more than just returning the streets back to the people, giving the people something that was wrongfully stolen from them—the freedom to meander and explore without the fear of penalization—but even more so a justice issue as the most marginalized are the ones most affected by an outdated, imbalanced law.